The Cheney Rules
October 24, 2008 - 1:52pm ET
Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman's book Angler expands on his Pulitzer-winning series with Jo Becker and takes one of the closest looks yet into the Cheney Vice Presidency. Its account also raises major questions about transparency, oversight and accountability for the next administration. In a recent article, "How to Angle: 10 Tips for the Next Vice President," Gellman listed his "Cheney Rules":
1. Fly Under the Radar.
2. Winning Is Easy When the Other Side Doesn't Know About the Game.
3. You Can't Be Fired.
4. Everyone Else Can Be.
5. Silence Is Powerful.
.6. Shouting Is Powerful, Too.
7. Know Thine Enemy.
8. Don't Write It Down.
9. Watch the Boss's Diet.
10. The President Really Is the Decider.
Read the full article for all the explanations, but I found three particularly interesting. Let's start with:
2. Winning Is Easy When the Other Side Doesn't Know About the Game.
See Rule No. 1. During his tenure as White House chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, Cheney emphasized the importance of letting all the president's advisers be heard in policy debate. "Be an honest broker," he advised a successor. But as vice president, Cheney cared more about winning. Just ask Colin Powell, Christine Todd Whitman, Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft and other very senior Bush aides, all of whom learned about historic, Cheney-driven shifts of policy only after the fact. When Rice's lawyer, John B. Bellinger III, complained in 2002 to David Addington, Cheney's hard-driving counsel, that he had not been consulted about the administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program, Addington made no apologies for cutting out the National Security Council staff: "I'm not going to tell you whether there is or isn't such a program. But if there were such a program, you'd better go tell your little friends at the FBI and the CIA to keep their mouths shut."
In addition to this dynamic of secrecy, Cheney took the lead (with Bush's permission) on staffing much of the administration. He not only recommended cabinet officials, but also many deputies and other middle-level positions. It's a strategy described in more depth in Frontline's "Cheney's Law" and in Angler. This allowed Cheney to stack the administration with like-minded folks and allies. Furthermore, as Gellman's book describes:
Richard Hass, who would quit his post as the State Department's director of policy planning after many defeats by the vice president and his allies, said Cheney's methods gave him "three bites at the apple" on every occasion. "There's the one with the president, when they're alone. That's the most interesting one, and we know the least about it. There's his participation in the Principals Committee meetings. And there's the staff role, from the deputies on down."
Angler, p. 54
Not only did Cheney have many deputies throughout agencies in his corner, in some cases he elevated their power:
Cheney arranged for [Scooter] Libby, whom Bush knew only slightly, to hold a third title as assistant to the president. Like so many apparent technicalities to come, this means something.
The presidential appointment placed Libby atop two separate and parallel hierarchies in the White House. He would work for Cheney, but also outrank nearly everyone who worked for Bush in the Executive Office of the President. Among his few peers would be Rice, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and political advisor Karl Rove. No one save Cheney and Bush themselves were his superiors. Like every assistant to the president, Libby would see and have the right to challenge any speech, legislation or executive order before it reached the Oval Office. No reciprocal right came with Card's job, or Rove's, when documents flowed to or from the vice president.
Angler, p. 44
Bush was indeed "the decider" (rule #10), but seeing himself as "big picture" guy, he was content to give Cheney wide latitude, especially on details and policy implementation. Meanwhile, Cheney kept a great deal off of Bush's desk. Rule #9:
9. Watch the Boss's Diet.
Cheney often told the White House staff to keep problems off the president's plate as much as possible. If Cheney cared about an issue, he did what he did with barbecue when his wife, Lynne, wasn't looking: He piled his own plate high. When Cabinet officers brought spending complaints to the White House, Cheney, not Bush, chaired the review panel. When Attorney General John Ashcroft objected to military tribunals for alleged terrorists, he found Cheney, not Bush, awaiting him in the Roosevelt Room. A top adviser to the president could always insist on a meeting with Bush, but how many times does anyone want to dip into that well? Ashcroft turned left as he left the meeting, away from the Oval Office and back out onto the street.
In an interview with Scott Horton, Gellman described Cheney as "a rare combination: a zealot in principle and a subtle, skillful tactician in practice." Cheney took an unprecedented approach to the office of the vice presidency:
[Mary] Matalin and others like to blur the line, but "no ambition" and "no agenda" were not quite the same thing. Cheney "gave himself permission not to run for president," as one old friend put it, but he had strong views in abundance on the course his country should take. If anything, Cheney's awareness of reaching the end of the line spurred his pursuit of policy goals that had eluded him before. Not only would this be his last chance, but Cheney was more impervious than ever to public opinion.
Through the next eight years, the vice president fell loyally in line behind Bush's decisions, whether or not he approved. But the first MBA president soon emerged as a manager who left a great deal to his subordinates, and who allowed disputes among his advisers to fester for months and years. The vice president-elect believed vital national interests were at stake. Until and unless Bush settled an argument, Cheney felt free - and even obliged - to use every advantage of his office to prevail.
That is why Cheney raised the status of his aides and inserted them into West Wing policy roles. The vice president was equipping his lieutenants to fight above their weight. Cheney was Number Two, but his office would bear no sign of secondary importance. In meetings of the president's cabinet-rank foreign policy advisers, "Scooter would be with Condi" and the other principals, said William Kristol, who was chief of staff to Dan Quayle in the first Bush administration. "His deputy attended the deputy meetings. Everyone is up a step from my day."
Angler, pp. 49-50
In addition to his other advantages, Cheney also sought an privileged position when it came to information and communication, even when private. As detailed in the truly remarkable rule #7:
7. Know Thine Enemy
It took three years for people on the National Security Council staff to learn that their e-mails and policy memos were bcc'd to the vice president's office. One of Rice's advisers discovered the secret arrangement after preparing a speech in which Bush would denounce the abuse of U.S.-held prisoners at Abu Ghraib and demand an explanation from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Cheney slipped the proposal to his old friend Rumsfeld, who mobilized a counterattack before the memo even found its way to Bush. Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld's deputy, called Hadley to complain, and the draft speech never reached the Oval Office. Nor was this type of intelligence-gathering limited to e-mails: Cheney's office sometimes used NSA transcripts to keep track of what policy rivals were saying overseas.
That's pretty astounding. It's not surprising that liberal viewpoints didn't play a major role in a conservative administration, but it's striking how rule-of-law conservatives such as General Counsel of the U.S. Navy Alberto Mora were also cut out of the loop, and in some cases even Cheney's own peers at the highest level. (Read the Angler excerpts for a prime example involving Ashcroft and the NSA.)
Some of this may only be of interest to students of the Bush administration, but it does raise questions about the mechanisms of government for making consequential decisions and checking power. Cheney's small fan base may applaud his actions, but would not likely feel the same way if a political nemesis held the same power and influence. A system that amplifies one perspective so much, in so many ways – and with other participants often not aware of what that perspective even is - is bound to produce lopsided results. When policy discussions are so imbalanced or in some cases vetting and discussion are almost completely bypassed, the chances for a bad decision grow tremendously. Put more simply, it shouldn't come as a shock when a bad decision-making process produces bad decisions. Ultimately, of course, the responsibility was and is Bush's, because he chose - or allowed - this management culture and this process.
The question remains as to what average citizens can do about this sort of thing if they disapprove. They can of course strive to pick the best, wisest, most trustworthy politicians. But once in office, those politicians may prove difficult to push or hold accountable if they oppose transparency. However, citizens can push for congressional oversight. They can use the Freedom of Information Act and work with watchdog groups. They can support efforts by the National Archives and a few other government entities not to classify documents as secret needlessly and that e-mails and other governmental records be stored and not destroyed. They can pay attention to significant policy changes at individual agencies. They can push the press corps to practice accountability journalism and ask tough questions of an administration. Finally, they can ask themselves what their vision of government is, and whether their officials - and candidates - reflect it. To return to Barton Gellman's interview with Scott Horton:
In [Cheney's] own frame of reference, the Constitution not only permits but compels him to help Bush break free of restraints on his prerogatives as commander in chief and leader of the unitary executive branch. But where Cheney does show contempt is for public opinion, the capacity of the citizenry at large to make rational decisions.
Go back and look at what he says about “opinion polls.” Invariably his message is that a politician who pays them heed is failing to do his job. As Cheney sees it, public opinion is fickle, ill-informed, self-contradictory, emotional–nothing like his own conversation with himself and trusted aides. He speaks disdainfully of critics as “elites,” but his own view of democracy is at the far elite extreme. Voters are entitled to choose a president every four years, he said at the National Press Club, but then they need to let him do his job. The transaction is like hiring a surgeon; pick a good one, and don’t try to tell him where to place the knife. This “trustee” model of democracy is associated with Edmund Burke, the Old Whig philosopher in 18th century England. It is not the model that took root here when the Founders designed a plan of government that derived its authority from the people. If you take Cheney’s view, aggressive efforts at secrecy, for our own good, to prevent us from making the wrong choices or interfering with government’s important work, are a rational response.
To return to Cheney rule #2, we're still learning the full extent of the game.
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